Good points, but hold the elitism please.

June 9th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

The other day I ran across an article in Forbes, “Kids Don’t Read Books Because Parents Don’t Read Books,” by Jordan Shapiro. The central point was that the print vs. digital debate is much less important than it is made out to be, and that the real story is how parents’ reading behavior affects that of their children. On board so far. Then I came to this paragraph:

I’ve met highly educated elite individuals who have told me they just don’t have time to read books. They skim the NY Times book review so they can participate in cocktail party conversations. They buy executive summaries from the back of in-flight magazines. I’m shocked by the number of people who ask me if there are audio versions of my books available.

That last sentence bothered me. Although he isn’t explicit about it, it looks a lot like Mr. Shapiro is equating audio books with executive summaries and book review articles. Huh. Even if I’m misinterpreting that, it is pretty clear that he is disappointed by these people who want to listen to his books rather than read them. Now, I won’t argue with the fact that listening to an audio production of a book is a different experience than reading the text of it, but it seems that I missed the part where he provided justification for implying that it is an inferior method.

The written word is a way of transcribing the spoken word, not the other way around, and though some books do not make the transition to audio very well, suggesting that text is the superior way of experiencing prose sounds to me like saying that we shouldn’t watch productions of Shakespeare as reading the plays is clearly far superior. Given his words in “Phaedrus”, I suspect that Socrates would side with me on this point. Or perhaps Shapiro’s derision is because listening to books can be less work than reading them on a page or a screen. Fair enough, but I would argue that the work of reading a book isn’t in how the text makes it from the author’s brain to your own, but rather with what you do with it once it gets there. Let’s not mistake audiobooks for television here.

Finally, it seems he has a bit of a double standard. He writes: “My kids read on the iPad, the e-reader, and paper. I make sure of it. I read to my kids every night.” I’m not exactly sure why a parent reading a story to their kid is worthy of praise and an adult having a story read to them is worthy of scorn. Perhaps it is because this inferior form of prose is okay for children, who cannot read on their own, except that he points out that his kids can and do. If, as parents, we need to model good reading behavior for our kids, it seems somewhat arbitrary that we should avoid modeling the enjoyment of listening to a book ourselves while encouraging our children to enjoy books that we read to them.

On another topic, at the end of the essay, he talks about some interesting findings from a recent study about what kids are reading. The one which caught my eye was the third:

3. Books like Twilight and Hunger Games are more popular than literary classics. These days, teachers assign these more often than Shakespeare or Don Quixote. Most of them will tell you that it is because they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement. On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other hand, we should remember that popular fiction prioritizes sales over content. They are revenue generators first and literary explorations of the human condition only afterward. This doesn’t necessarily mean popular fiction is bad, but there’s also a reason that certain books have transcended the economic, political, and epistemological trends of particular centuries.

I’m not sure that most teachers would say that the reason they might assign a popular book is that “they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement.” I missed the supporting evidence for that bit. Perhaps the teachers are just trying to assign books that their students will find entertaining and relevant. Perhaps these teachers are trying to show their students that reading is fun and rewarding. Perhaps the historical importance of the first contemporary novel is not the thing to create lifelong reading habits.

Frankly, if I have to choose between a teen reading “Don Quixote” in high school and coming to the conclusion that reading is tedious or that same student reading “Hunger Games” and coming to the conclusion that reading is fun, perhaps even later in life listening to an audio production of “Don Quixote”, I’ll pick the latter any day of the week. As important as the classics may be, and as much as we should encourage people of all ages to read them (in whatever format works for them), how about we give them the tools and opportunity to decide to do it on their own first.

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And now for some good news

May 20th, 2014  |  Published in Misc

Smashwords (where I have a bunch of stuff) has just announced that it has partnered with Overdrive (the company that most libraries use for ebooks). This is awesome on a number of fronts. First of all, authors on Smashwords will have the opportunity to sell to libraries and get exposure through them. Second the publishing industry has been very reluctant to sell ebooks to libraries (and when they did, often selling them at exorbitant prices) and it appears that libraries will be able to purchase from Smashwords at pretty much the list price (although there is a price floor of $1.99 due to Overdrive). This move will hopefully add some leverage to the library side of things (after all, they do have budgets for procuring new material and it is more difficult to set one-sided terms if there is an alternative). Finally, this will allow libraries to better work with the independent and local community. All in all, good news.

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Judge Dixon, you’re doing it wrong.

May 19th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

Last year, a guy decided to drive his Ferrari through downtown Olympia at 100 MPH, while drunk and being pursued and with a captive passenger. It was his 7th DUI. He recently plead guilty to felony charges of the DUI as well as eluding a police officer. His sentence: no jail time and a one year work release program. WTF?

Reading about this, one has to wonder what Judge Dixon was thinking. It looks an awful lot like corruption, and even if it isn’t, when you’re talking about the judiciary, there is little difference between the appearance of impropriety and impropriety in fact. This sort of thing damages the perception of the courts, and therefore the fabric of society (insofar as we are a nation of laws). I doubt that much can be done at present, but until it can, lets just hope that the defendant decides against vehicular manslaughter, as the courts seem to have no interest in doing anything about it.

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What a thoroughly odd day.

May 10th, 2014  |  Published in Misc

Today was strange. I was tired all day–exhausted, really–and kind of cranky. On top of that, ShoStoWriMo seems to be fizzling this year, with participation much lower than would be expected from the initial response (I have some ideas on what I can do better next year, though). Finally, I had trouble finding any short stories to listen to at  work (from the Clarkesworld and Escape Pod podcasts) that did anything for me.

On the other hand, today was excellent. I finally got to the point in my follow-up to “There Are No Words” where I get to explore Calvin and Hobbes from the perspective of a guy in a post-literate society (everyone has computers in their heads, among other things). Also, I’ve been thinking again of doing a Kickstarter for Caldera (to have it edited, get it printed, and commission some art), which has a distinctly optimistic feel to it.

In short, I was depressed, but had a blast writing on my lunch break and am optimistic about doing something more with one of my favorite stories. What a weird day.

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How Things Are

April 29th, 2014  |  Published in announcement

Well, I was hoping to have an essay about the unexpected degree to which gamification (most notably in the form of HabitRPG, which you should go check out, right now) has changed my life in a facts-on-the-ground sort of way. But, apparently it hasn’t changed my life that much (fundamentally not bad, as I regard writing fiction as being exponentially more important than writing blog posts). Still, I am writing this now, and that’s something.

The main things that I’ve been working on for the past week have been the followup story to “There Are No Words”, tentatively called “Passport Denied”, which I haven’t yet published, but if you ask I would likely send you a copy. I’m really enjoying the story as it is unfolding and I look forward to seeing it in its final form. That being said, what started off as a short story is now nearing the 12,000 word mark, and will probably end up firmly in novella territory (barring massive cuts during revision). Overall, “There Are No Words” and “Passport Denied” are planned to be opening of a novel-length work that I would like to finish this year but probably won’t.

Part of the reason for that is that May 1st is almost here, and with it, ShoStoWriMo. Preparations are going well for that, and I think that it will be a good year for the event. In any case, I’m going to try and get a little bit of writing in before I go to bed, so good night.

 

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ShoStoWriMo 2014!

April 22nd, 2014  |  Published in ShoStoWriMo

Up until a few minutes ago, I was unsure whether I would do ShoStoWriMo this year or not, but since I just created a subreddit for it, it would appear that I am going to do it after all. I’ll post more about it as May approaches, promise.

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Stories I Probably Won’t Get Around To Writing: The Silent and The Dead

March 17th, 2014  |  Published in Uncategorized, writing

Okay, let’s say that there’s a zombie outbreak and virtually everyone gets infected (99% or more).  What would that look like? I’m going to use Olympia as an example, as that is where I live.

The average population density of Thurston County (where Olympia is located) is 347 people/square mile. This could be better (the average for the US is 88) but it could be a whole lot worse (Los Angeles County has a population density of 2,100 people/square mile). Assuming “Walking Dead” style zombies, with a small group, you should be able to clear a square mile without too much trouble over the course of a week. The problem comes in when people get guns. Something like an assault rifle might be audible as far away as five miles. With sustained shooting, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that you would draw every zombie within a three mile radius. Not so bad, right? Wrong. A three mile radius gives you an area of a little over 28 square miles, with 347 zombies per square mile, you’re talking about nearly 10,000 zombies.

Now, let’s say that you’re a survivalist shooting zombies from their roof. Even with a 100% accuracy rate, you would be talking about 10,000 rounds, and at 28 pounds/1000 rounds, you would be talking about 280 pounds of ammunition, just to give you an idea of the amount of supplies you would need. Furthermore, what would 10,000 zombies look like? Shoulder to shoulder, that many people would take up something like one and a half football fields. In any case, I think that you get the picture. Things would not be good for our lone survivalist with his buried gold, canned food, and mountain of ammunition. I wouldn’t write about him.

Instead, I would write about the sort of group that would survive the math of the situation. They would need to be competent, not necessarily at killing zombies, but in organizing themselves as a group. A disorganized or fractious group of people with weapons doesn’t have many more choices than the a single armed person (in fact they may even have fewer, as their resource footprint would increase with their size). Weapons are force multipliers for individuals. Organization, on the other hand, is a force multiplier for groups.

The group would find a defensible place with a source of fresh water (and as far from survivalist types as practicable), and they would secure that area as quietly as possible, then gradually move out, clearing the area around them.  Once they had carved out a large enough area for themselves, they would create zombie traps, basically pits with sound emitting things (perhaps a shishi odishi for zombies?) scattered around the area’s perimeter. Every day or so, someone would head out the pits, dump in some gasoline, and burn the day’s zombies.

Wouldn’t they need that gasoline for their cars? No. First of all, gasoline goes bad and eventually will not work in your engines (but will probably still be viable for burning some zombies). Second, cars are loud (see the bit about drawing zombies to you above) and require cleared roads or paths. Finally, gasoline production would cease at the zombie outbreak (or shortly thereafter), and the group would soon find itself scavenging farther and farther away just to fuel their vehicles.

So what sort of stories would take place in this setting? First of all, there wouldn’t be much soap opera (which isn’t to say that it would be entirely absent, either), as it requires a fractious group and would likely get everyone killed before long. Instead, the story would probably focus on the various struggles from within the group, such as how decisions are made, and how to deal with divisive issues (51-49 votes are terrible for morale, see congress). The group would have to decide on its relationship to other survivors. I’m sure that there would be plenty of stories to tell in this setting. The main difference is that it wouldn’t be as annoying as much of what you see being made these days, which either assumes that people are basically bad (it seems to me that our world is an example of the opposite) or that people want to watch petty squabbling, or both.

In any case, I probably won’t write this, or at least not any time soon, but wanted to share the ideas anyway. If you do want to write it, feel free.

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Free Stuff

March 3rd, 2014  |  Published in announcement

Apparently, this week is Read an Ebook Week. So, through Saturday, March 8th, you can get everything that I have available on Smashwords for free. Granted, most of it was free already, but if you wanted to snag a copy of Caldera, Heist (the most recent Horizon Station story), Try Not To Panic, The Press, or The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, now is your chance. Instructions are up on the site, but the short of it is that you will enter RW100 as a coupon and the books will then be free.

If you aren’t familiar with Smashwords, it is a digital self publishing platform, kind of like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. There are some key differences, however, in that it gives the author a lot more control over their books and that it is much friendlier for the reader. When you get a book directly through Smashwords (they also distribute through just about everyone but Amazon), you can download it for your Kindle, your Nook, as a generic epub, a printer-friendly PDF or RTF, or read it online (among other options). The upshot of this is that you aren’t locked into a particular marketplace or device. If you want to share the book, you can, there is no DRM (although this is somewhat discouraged in the license text at the front of each book, but I would rather you share my stuff than keep it to yourself, license be damned).

If, for whatever reason, you feel bad about downloading one of my books for free (whatever the provenance of that free book) and want to help me out, just leave a review of it and we’ll be more than even. Happy eReading!

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What does your ringtone say about you?

February 3rd, 2014  |  Published in commentary

So I have this theory (okay, I have a lot of theories, most of them likely wrong, but bear with me), and if you started this article by reading the title, you might have guessed that my theory is about classifying people by their cell phone ringtones. Yes, I realize that I am painting with the broadest of brushes and that I have a definite preference for not being aware of other people trying to contact you while I’m talking to you, but this blog has been on my To-Blog list for over a year now, so I kind of have to write it down at this point, as it has reached the internet age of majority and will soon sue me for confinement. So what does your ringtone say about you? I’ll divide this into two portions: volume and type of tone. After going through this, you will be a better person.

Volume

The volume at which you have your ringtone set says a lot about how you view the people in close personal proximity to you. Here is the range:

  • LOUD: The people who are near you, physically, are nowhere near as important as whoever might call you. And how could they be? You already know all about them, they’re right there next to you, after all. Chances are, the people you hang out with share many of your values, and so their cellphones are set just as loud as yours. Alternatively, you might have hearing loss.
  • Moderate: Most of the people who call you are actually people you might need to talk to, and although you want to make sure that you don’t miss the call, you also don’t want to annoy the people around you. This would also be the setting for someone who would normally be the LOUD personality type but is forced to adopt a less irritating persona for the sake of appearances (think corporate executives).
  • quiet: The people around you are more important than those far removed, but occasionally you do need to hear what the person on the other end of the metaphorical line has to say, though if you miss it the world will not immediately go off the rails.
  • vibrate: You find buzzing things to be calming. Or more likely, you aren’t planning on answering your phone but you want plausible deniability (“Sorry, didn’t feel it go off, but I can’t turn it up at work. No, I don’t have a reason for why it took a week to get back to you. What, the problem has resolved itself without my intervention? Splendid. I think my work is done here. Bye.”). You are a good person.
  • silent: Answering your phone is simply not a priority. Not as in low on your priority list, but more akin to not on the list at all. Alternately, you might have AT&T and so have long since given up on actually being able to use your phone as a phone. Either way, you may want to talk to someone about that.

Tone

Whereas the volume of a cell’s ringer indicates how a person views the world, their tone is all about how they perceive themselves or want themselves to be perceived.

  • Music: Either you really like listening to music in short, randomly spaced snippets or feel that dressing just like your friends leaves a little to be desired in the individuality business.
  • Preloaded Quasi-Musical Ringtone: Just like the Music type above but attaching a much lower value to individuality. Alternately, you might just be trying to prove how hip you are.
  • Theme Song to Quantum Leap: You want the rest of the world to recognize your awesomeness, but instead finds that whenever your phone goes off you look for whoever that cool person is with the cool ringtone only to realize that the cool person is you and your phone is about to go to voicemail.
  • Combination of Beeps and Tones: You hold tight to the outdated idea that a ringtone’s job is to alert you to an incoming call. You probably don’t even have a colorful protective case. If you are not in this category, avoid these people, they might attempt to convince you that individuality is about the way you live your life, not how you decorate it. If you are in this category, it is probably too late for you.
  • Silent/Vibrate: You don’t believe in ringtones and are probably actually a luddite who only grudgingly goes along with societal norms. Get help now.

Conclusion

So there you go, you can tell everything you might ever need to know about a person simply by the volume and tone of their phone. All without ever having to actually get to know them. Think of how much time this is going to save you!

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Recursive Geekiness

January 6th, 2014  |  Published in announcement, logic, writing

I’m about 7,700 words in on the Broken Shores story that I’m currently working on and I’ve started to run into some problems, namely that I need to know where everyone on the island is at a given time. This isn’t an insurmountable problem, as there are only seven people on the island, but it can be a bit tricky. One way to do it would be to just write things so that people are wherever the story needs them to be. This approach would be fine if I were only writing a single story in the setting, but as it is part of a larger series, it would lead to inconsistency. So on my lunch break last Saturday, I went ahead and started to make a schedule, which is where the title comes from (sitting in a room full of people, some of whom I enjoy talking to, using my phone/keyboard combination to create a spreadsheet that tracks the schedule of fiction people on a fictional island in a fictional world, and I couldn’t use a regular calendar program because my world has eight-day-long weeks due to my decision to play around with calendar stuff, raise your hand if you feel normal now).

The work will likely pay off as it will make writing the story much easier, but it brought up something else that I found interesting, as well. Making the schedule I learned a lot about the island, such as who was likely to be close to whom and how important seniority was. In addition, it helped to define the group dynamic, after all not everyone can have the best schedule, creating tension. Finally, it will likely result in the stories being more interesting, as it places some limits on who is available at any given moment. For example, if Emera needs help, the best person to provide that help might be Ran, but what if he is on watch? What if he is dead tired from a long stretch of work? Emera now needs to either find someone else or find some way of convincing him to help her despite very good reasons not to. This is much more interesting than being able to simply write: Emera found Ran and asked for help or having to make up reasons for him not to help her. It will also likely feel more realistic, more relatable to those of us who have to work around scheduling conflicts.

In short, if I had to sum it up in a rule concise observation, the more you know about the world you’re creating in your fiction, the easier it will be to make that fiction interesting. I’m sure that I’m not the first person to say this (in fact, I recall hearing a piece of advice that when you run into a dead end, find out what your character’s hobbies are), but it bears repeating. Also, I think that this applies to all kinds of fiction, whether it be speculative or straight literature set in modern day Chicago, there are things that won’t be immediately obvious about a given character, and if you find yourself running into a lot of walls in your writing, you might want to take the time to dig a little and learn something new about them.

On a final note, I think that this has some bearing on the nature of creativity. Creativity is often viewed as creating something entirely new, or recombining existing elements in an interesting fashion (I personally believe the latter is vastly more common than the former, if you doubt me, go spend some time at TV Tropes), but that is only the starting point. Good narrative is two things: something new and the logical consequences of that something new. If you do only the first, you get a confused mess, if you do only the second (logical consequences sans something new) you get something even worse, boredom. I will end by disagreeing with Einstein, who said “Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” Imagination can take you to fantastic new places, but without logic, you will find yourself earthbound, wherever you may land.

And now for some shameless self-promotion. I’ve written two stories that are part of the particular storyline I’m talking about, “Induction” and “Trust and Vulnerability“. They’re free and you should really check them out. “Induction” is also available (for free) on Smashwords for just about any format, I hope to get the rest of Broken Shores up there as well, this year.